Third Conditional in English + Example Sentences [Advanced Grammar]

Jan 13, 2021 | Conditionals in English, Grammar, Modal Verbs

This lesson was originally published in 2015.
It was updated with a new video and new content in January 2021.

You’ve probably heard English teachers say, ‘The third conditional is used to talk about impossible or unreal situations in the past.’

But what does that mean? Is it really necessary to talk about something unreal from the past? Something that never even happened? 

Today I want to uncover what the third conditional is REALLY used for — because it actually is quite useful — and make it easy for you to use it accurately in your English conversations.

By the time you finish this lesson, you’ll be 100% clear on why and how you should be using the third conditional in English.

In fact, you’ll discover:

  • Two primary reasons to use the third conditional in grammar books
  • How to accurately use the structure for third conditional sentences

Throughout the video lesson, you’ll be example sentences.


Check out the other lessons in this series:

Grammar Review: Past Participles and the Past Perfect

Before we look at the Third Conditional, let’s review some important grammar forms that we need to use.

The past perfect combines the past form of have → had + the past participle

Examples: had won, had gone, had eaten, had worked, had cleaned

The past participle is that third form of a verb in English. For regular verbs, this is easy:

  • work – worked – worked
  • clean – cleaned – cleaned
  • walk – walked – walked

But for irregular verbs, it’s a bit more challenging. Do you remember memorizing all those verb lists in your English classes? We’ll know that will help you! Irregular verbs use different forms, for example:

  • win – won – won
  • eat – ate – eaten
  • drink – drank – drunk
  • go – went – gone

How to Use the Third Conditional in English

The third conditional focuses on a past event/situation that cannot be changed or an unreal past event/situation. Another way to think about is an event or situation that did not happen.

That may seem strange. Why would we talk about something that didn’t happen?

Take a look at these example sentences. Can you identify why we might say these?

  • If you hadn’t eaten so much, you wouldn’t have been sick. (But you DID eat too much, so you were sick.)
  • She would have gotten the job if she had prepared for the interview. (But she didn’t prepare well for the interview, so she didn’t get the job.)
  • I wouldn’t have used this paint color if I had known how dark it would look! (But I didn’t know and now I’m disappointed.)


Expressing Regrets or Wishing We Could Change the Past

I have never met someone who is perfectly happy with every single decision and action that has happened in their life. Have you?

Sometimes we regret the past… past decisions, past actions, past situations, etc. And sometimes we wish something in the past had been different. But it isn’t different. It can’t be different. It’s impossible (that’s the key word!).

But we still wish for it.

To express regret or our wish to change the past, here are some examples:

  • If I hadn’t lost my wallet, I would have had much more fun on my vacation. (In reality, I regret that I lost my wallet because I had a terrible vacation.)
  • If I had gone to a better university, I would have had better career opportunities. (I wish I could have, but I didn’t have the option)
  • If I had studied abroad when I was younger, my English would have been better.
  • If I could start all over again, I would have become a physician.


Criticizing Someone for Something that Already Happened

Sometimes another person makes a decision or does something that we don’t agree with, we don’t like, or that makes us unhappy. It is too late to change it but we can use the Third Conditional to criticize and show that we are unhappy about it.

  • If you hadn’t missed the catch, we would have won the game! (But you did miss the catch so we lost the game and I’m upset!)
  • We wouldn’t have been late to the meeting if you had remembered to put gas in the car this morning! (But you did forget to put gas in the car, so we were late.)


Just for Fun

It’s true, just like the Second Conditional, we sometimes use the Third Conditionals for fun or to get to know someone. Sometimes it’s even useful!

Whether in a job interview or meeting someone at a party or bar or simply networking, sometimes we use third conditional questions to start conversations and learn more about who you are.

Examples questions:

  • If you could have studied at any university in the world, where would it have been?
  • If you hadn’t become a [name your profession], what would you have been?
  • What would have been different about your life if you had grown up in another country?

The reality is, you cannot change anything about the past and we are imagining something that is unreal but it is kind of fun, isn’t it?

After you’ve watched the video and reviewed the lesson, I’d love to hear from you!

Whew! That was a tough lesson. I know. Thanks for staying with me to the end!

And now it’s your turn to practice.

  1. Do you have any regrets about the past or something you wish you could change?
  2. Have you ever needed to criticize someone for a decision she made or something she did?

Try using the third conditional and share your answers in the comments section below.

Thanks so much for joining me! And if you found this lesson helpful to you, share it with friends or colleagues!

~ Annemarie

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